Heavyweight commission highlights China's determination to ensure food safety

21:27, February 10, 2010      

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China's State Council has set up a food safety commission consisting of three vice premiers and a dozen minister-level officials, following a string of nationwide crackdowns and arrests in the wake of new melamine-tainted milk products being discovered.

The lineup of the commission's members, which was announced Wednesday, includes Vice Premiers Li Keqiang, Hui Liangyu and Wang Qishan, as well as more than ten heads or vice heads of government departments in charge of health, finance, and agriculture among others.

The high-profile establishment of the commission showed the Chinese leadership's determination to address the country's food safety issues, Prof. Wang Yukai with Chinese Academy of Governance told Xinhua Wednesday.

The State Council's announcement followed reports of a number of melamine contaminated milk products being found in Shanghai as well as Liaoning, Shandong, and Shaanxi Provinces in recent months.

"The reemergence of the tainted milk products is a sign that China's food safety system is far from perfect," Wang said.

Hopefully, the establishment of the new food safety commission would make melamine-laced milk a thing of the past, he said.

"With a powerful vice premier in charge of coordinating the government departments in dealing with food safety issues, ... the new commission is expected to spot problems with China's current food safety system and to solve them before they lead to tragedies," Wang said.

Food safety drew national attention in China in 2004, when at least 13 babies died from malnutrition in the eastern province of Anhui and another 171 were hospitalized, after consuming shoddy infant milk powder that contained too little protein.

In November 2006, the country's food safety watchdog found seven companies producing salted red-yolk eggs with cancer-causing red Sudan dyes to make their eggs look redder and fresher.

And then in 2008 there was the melamine milk scandal. Milk laced with melamine led to the deaths of six babies and sickened 300,000 others who had been fed with baby formula made from tainted milk.

The scandal destroyed the credibility of China's dairy industry and seriously damaged the "made in China" brand internationally.

"China had learned its lesson in food safety the hard way," Wang said.

But food safety still remains a concern in the country to this day, due to inadequate coordination, poor law enforcement and supervision of government departments, he said.

In the recently reported melamine-tainted milk cases, some of the tainted milk products were apparently made of old batches of tainted milk powder slated for destruction but hoarded away instead by dairy firms and later repackaged.

"The reason why the melamine-tainted milk powder was not completely destroyed and instead reused in production lies in inadequate law enforcement and supervision," said Wang Wei, also a professor from the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Governance.

The new food safety commission should play its role in supervising enterprises shoulder their own responsibilities to abide by the laws and regulations.

His view was echoed by Prof. Zheng Yongnian, director of East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore.

"Food safety incidents not only happen in China, but in developed countries as well," Zheng said, "The key to solve the problem is government supervision, and effective enforcement of the laws."

He said the establishment of the commission highlights that China is further adjusting the relations between government and market. And China's market economy is at such a stage of development that government must play a strong role in regulating it.

"A commission headed by Li Keqiang and seated by more than a dozen of minister-level officials would certainly enhance coordination between government departments and improve the government's supervising and enforcement abilities," he said.

Wang Yukai also said effective coordination between different government departments strengthened by the food safety commission would help with China's decision making when dealing with food safety issues.

"As far as I know, food safety is regulated by multiple government departments in all countries. What is vital is coordinating them to work together well with force," he said.

In addition, the government departments tended to "fix problems after they occur ... instead of finding them before they get too big," he added.

With the new commission in place, however, government coordination could be carried out more smoothly, and government heads would sit together to find problems with the food safety system and solve them, he said.

Source: Xinhua
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